The need for routine smell and taste testing: reflections on the first ‘Towards Universal Chemosensory Testing’ conference
By Duncan Boak, Fifth Sense CEO and founder
I was invited to speak at ‘Towards Universal Chemosensory Testing’ in Philadelphia on 5-7 November. This was the first scientific conference focused on the need for smell and taste testing to become routine, which is a key goal for Fifth Sense in the UK.
The conference was attended predominantly by members of the US scientific community, in addition to public health and patient representatives. The excellent presentations covered a range of topics, including why smell and tase testing is needed, some of the different chemosensory tests that have been developed and how they can aid diagnosis and treatment. There was also a lot of discussion about the challenges involved in introducing smell and taste testing. The conference had an understandable focus on the US healthcare system, given its location and how it was funded.
I lost my sense of smell in 2005. When I went to see my GP about this I was told, with a shrug, that very little was known about the sense of smell and nothing could be done. Suffice to say that a smell test didn’t come into the conversation; my doctor knew little and I knew even less.
It’s quite amazing to look back on this now, with the benefit of hindsight and the work I have done leading Fifth Sense over the last 11 years. My talk at the conference focused on the change that Fifth Sense is driving here in the UK; we’re working with Cadent, the UK’s largest Gas Distribution Network, the Fire and Rescue Service, the NHS and our partners FlavorActiV to pilot simple smell screening tools in different settings. Cadent and Fifth Sense worked together to create a gas safety card which includes a ‘scratch and sniff’ panel on it that has methyl mercaptan embedded on it. This is the substance injected into natural gas to give it a smell.
Fire and Rescue Services in different parts of England are now using these cards when they do Home Safety Visits to help identify if someone in the house has a problem with their sense of smell. If someone can’t detect the smell of gas on the card, they’re unlikely to smell it if it’s leaking from their gas boiler. The Fire Service can then pass on steps that people can take to stay safe at home, and also information about Fifth Sense, so people are able to contact us for support and information.
Safety at home is just one example of why smell testing is so important, however. A growing body of research increasingly points to a link between smell impairment and increased risk of frailty in older adults, neurodegenerative disease and increased risk of mortality. Regular testing of people’s sense of smell will enable a range of potential problems to be diagnosed sooner, with people being given support and information to aid their health, wellbeing and safety. It will also enable children with congenital anosmia to receive an early diagnosis so they and their parents can be given appropriate support and information, something that is currently lacking.
Here in the UK we are not starting from zero. There are already at least 10 specialist smell and taste or rhinology clinics in England that are testing patients’ sense of smell, but we need more. We want to ensure that, in future, everyone in the UK has access to a specialist clinic where they can get a comprehensive smell test, with screening tests also undertaken in community health settings.
There are considerable challenges involved in making any major change in healthcare, and getting routine smell and taste testing to become a reality will have its fair share. However I am determined that Fifth Sense, working with our partners, will drive forward this much-needed change and I look forward to the day when getting one’s sense of smell and taste tested will be as easy as it now is for sight and hearing.
Fifth Sense CEO and founder